New Video Focuses on LGBT Catholics “Owning Our Faith”

March 11, 2015

A new video about sexuality and spirituality, aimed ultimately at Pope Francis as its audience, has been released on the web by a group of LGBT Catholics in New York City.

A still shot from the video “Owning Our Faith”

“Owning Our Faith” is a 14-minute film in which a diversity of LGBT Catholics, family members, and pastoral ministers speak candidly about the intersection of their faith with their acceptance of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The film was the brainchild of Michael Tomae, and a press release described the film’s genesis:

“[Michael] was inspired to act after his volunteer work with Covenant House, a homeless shelter for youth. Many of these young adults were disowned by their Christian families because of their sexuality or gender identity. Tomae was inspired to start a larger conversation, with the primary focus being that one’s faith is not fully wrapped up in one’s sexuality. Tomae reached out to members of the vibrant LGBT community at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, a Catholic Church in Manhattan, and together they brought the project to life.”

The press release also explained that the film is being released in hopes that Pope Francis and bishops will be better prepared for the upcoming synod on family life:

“The film also addresses Pope Francis’ calling for bishops to seek input from Catholics about how the Church should respond to difficult questions on modern family life. The Ordinary Synod of bishops is set to discuss “family” in the context of contemporary life in October 2015. The video focuses on three themes (1) sexuality & faith (2) LGBT people are gifts to the Catholic Church and (3) the idea that “All Are Welcome” and loved by God.

“We want our stories to be a part of the discussion because LGBT people have unique gifts to contribute to the life of the Church.
We hope the Church recognizes that God is working through our life stories. We want to inspire change that will strengthen families, encourage acceptance of LGBT people, foster an inclusive community, and promote an open and accepting dialogue among Catholics across the world. Most of all, we want everyone to know they are loved and not alone.”

The film covers a variety of family and individual situations, with interviews of about 20 people, including:  Hilary and Celestine Howes, a married Catholic couple whose marriage has continued after Hilary’s transition;  Eve Tushnet, a Catholic lesbian convert;  Mike Roper, a 74-year old Catholic gay man; Mateo Williamson, a young transgender man who discusses the spiritual journey of transition; gay couple Rick and Matt Vidal; Xorje Olivares, a Latino gay man who struggles with discussing his sexuality with some family members; Francis and Cheryl Putorti, parents who discuss how they support their gay son, in spite of negative messages they received from the church.

Towards the beginning of the film, Father Patrick Conroy, chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives, explains sexuality’s purposes:

“Human beings procreate, male/female. But human sexuality isn’t just about that. It’s about so much more, which is self-evident.”

Later he talks about the shape that LGBT ministry can take:

“How might we be more welcoming and minister better to the presence of gay and lesbian Catholics in our communities in such a way that they feel  that they have a church where they can be nourished, where they can be fed.  What is God doing with this community who longs to be fully participating in the sacramental life of our church?. . . .As a church, for the first time, we are being encouraged to pick up a different glass to look through.  Instead of ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ [we are now asking] ‘what’s great about this picture?’  I think this is an extraordinary time and a time of great hope.”

In addition to releasing the film, the “Owning Our Faith” project has a full website with two important resources:  1) an invitation for other individuals to share their faith/sexuality/gender stories on video for posting on YouTube; 2) a resource for individuals to find LGBT-welcoming Catholic parishes and faith communities near their homes; 3) a list of discussion questions for parishes or other faith groups who view the film together.

For many years, New Ways Ministry, and many other Catholic LGBT-positive groups, have been encouraging people to start a dialogue with church leaders about sexuality and gender issues.  This has become particularly important during this unique time surrounding the synods on marriage and family. This group of young adult filmmakers have found a unique and moving way to get that dialogue started by sharing stories on video.  The film is not only inspiring and insightful, but it is disarming and welcoming, accessible to a wide variety of people who may share divergent views on LGBT issues.  This documentary is sure to build bridges to many and varied people, both inside and outside the Catholic Church.

[You can view the documentary by clicking here.]

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Minstry


Reflecting on the Papal Audience with LGBT Catholics

February 27, 2015

Now that New Ways Ministry pilgrims are back in the United States, and now that the dust is settling from our exciting journey to Italy which included prime reserved seating at the papal audience in St. Peter’s Square on Ash Wednesday, it seems a good time to reflect on the the experience.  And while we’re reflecting, you might want to see a clip of our group singing the hymn “All Are Welcome” to the pope on that day.  Just click on the following video:

As for relfection, I think I can speak for my fellow pilgrims when I say that the trip and the Pope Francis experience can be summed up in one word:


The news stories of our special seats went literally around the globe, appearing in news outlets in Poland, Argentina, Germany, United Kingdom, Malaysia, Ireland, Australia, Spain. And those are only the stories that we have been able to track.

I think our pilgrimage participants were more surprised than anyone that the story received so much attention.  We certainly didn’t feel special, and we certainly didn’t feel we deserved such attention. While it was certainly an honor to be seated so close to Pope Francis, in seats reserved for VIPs, we hadn’t realized that this would be the case until the very moment when we were ushered to our section. We didn’t really have much time to anticipate and prepare for the experience.

We knew that Archbishop Georg Ganswein, prefect of the papal household, had reserved seats for us, but the letter that he sent to Sister Jeannine Gramick gave no indication that these were special seats, or even where they were located.

Indeed, our first interpretation of Ganswein’s response to Sister Jeannine’s letter seemed to be something of a “consolation prize.”   She had not requested special seating:  she had requested that Pope Francis meet with our pilgrimage group of LGBT Catholics and supporters.  We assumed that Ganswein was giving us a polite dismissal, not a place of distinction.

Ganswein had met Sister Jeannine back in 2003 when she visited the Vatican, and gave him a copy of the Italian edition of her book, Building Bridges: Gay and Lesbian Reality and the Catholic Church, in order to present it to Cardinal Ratzinger.  The English edition had been a major focus of the Vatican’s investigation of Sister Jeannine and her co-author, Father Robert Nugent, which had taken place in the 1990s.  Ganswein is well aware of the controversy, and knows of the history that New Ways Ministry has had with the Vatican.  These past events did not prevent him from welcoming our group to the preferred seating section.  It is like the cloud of suspicion surrounding Sister Jeannine and New Ways Ministry is not as thick or as suffocating as it used to be.

One wrinkle in this experience was the way our group was named among those attending the audience.   The list did not mention that we were from the LGBT community, though Sr. Jeannine had made that explicit in her letter.   There was some disappointment about this fact, but most of the pilgrims took it in stride.

Part of their willingness to forgive this error arose from the treatment we received on our past two pilgrimages to Rome. Under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, our presence was not acknowledged at all.  While our LGBT status was not recognized publicly, this LGBT group was not shunned.  Indeed, it was given a place of honor.

Still, I think that this incident of not being named is in a way symbolic of the way that Pope Francis is approaching LGBT issues.  He is willing to go to a certain point, but he is not yet willing to go all the way.  For some people that approach is cowardly.  For others, it might seem political.  I tend to view it as a step forward.

Part of the step forward means that it is a great improvement over the previous two papacies.  Their approach to LGBT issues seemed to be avoidance, opposition, and silencing.  Pope Francis’ approach seems to be engagement, welcome, and discussion.   Those are important changes.

But Pope Francis, for all his welcome, has not fully embraced LGBT issues.  He has opposed marriage equality and adoption rights for lesbian and gay couples.  He has promoted the concept of  gender complementarity as a requisite for marriage.  Most recently, he attacked “gender theory,” a term to describe anything that does not fit traditional gender roles, as being akin to nuclear war.

On the other hand, it seems he may be open to civil unions.  He has opened wide the discussion in the Church on marriage and family issues by his management of the synod process and his call for bishops to consult the laity on these matters.  He has called for church leaders to seek out the marginalized and to provide a welcome to all, especially those the Church has traditionally ignored.

In other words, his record, so far, is a mixed bag.

As Sister Jeannine and I told many reporters after the audience, Pope Francis has taken some very important steps in the right direction, but the church hierarchy still needs to take many more steps in order to achieve justice and equality for LGBT people.  It must speak out against repressive laws around the globe against LGBT people.  It must condemn violence directed towards them.  It must stop firing LGBT church workers and volunteers.  It must speak out for equal treatment before the law.

When we were asked, “What more could Pope Francis be doing?” our answer was simple:  there must be more dialogue with LGBT people and family members.  We suggested that the upcoming synod and World Meeting of Families would be excellent opportunities for such dialogue, and we recommended that the pope and his team invite members of the LGBT Catholic community to speak publicly at those events about their lives, faith, and love.

Recognition of our group at this papal audience was another step in the process of LGBT inclusion in the Church.  Our hope is that the Vatican’s action will inspire national and local church leaders to follow their example.

The papal audience is all about gestures and symbols. While it was an honor for New Ways Ministry’s pilgrimage group to be recognized at the audience, we are keenly aware that this honor was not for the 49 of us alone.  It was a welcome and recognition that extends to all LGBT Catholics and allies who have worked so hard for so long for some kind of official acknowledgment.  As we prayed while sitting near the doors of St. Peter’s Basilica and just a few yards from Pope Francis, we prayed in thanksgiving for all of you who have been transforming our Church, and which helped bring it to this moment.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

London’s Catholics Report on Their Pastoral Needs and Gifts

January 8, 2014

A group representing LGBT Catholics in London, England, sent a report to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales just before Christmas, which was their assessment of pastoral outreach to LGBT Catholics in the city’s Archdiocese of Westminster.

The LGBT Catholics Westminster Pastoral Council  wrote to Elizabeth Davies, Marriage and Family Life Project Officer at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, as a response to the Conference’s request for feedback from the laity in advance of the World Synod on Marriage and Family Life at the Vatican later this year.

The LGBT Catholics Westminster Pastoral Council used to be known as the Soho Masses Pastoral Council.  Their name was changed when their bi-monthly Mass was moved from London’s Soho neighborhood to the Mayfair neighborhood.

The group identified four areas of concern.  Below are excerpted highlights from the letter:

1) Parish life:

“In the vast majority of Catholic parishes in the UK there is no dedicated pastoral care of LGBT Catholics. Typical Catholic parishes are very unlikely to mention any pastoral care in the parish newsletter, or even to recognise the needs of LGBT Catholics as a group. By contrast, there are often groups dedicated to various language and ethnic groups, Justice and Peace, Mother and Children groups, etc., all of which is laudable. The effect on the ordinary LGBT Catholic is to feel largely invisible and unrecognised at best, or at worst to feel excluded, merely the subject of distant, hierarchical pronouncements regarding LGBT people as if they do not belong to the community of the faithful. On a day to day basis, in the parish, there is fear of visibly recognising and catering pastorally to LGBT Catholic people.”

2) Personal harm caused by church language:

“The Church teaching on LGBT Catholics with the use of terms such as “objectively disordered” together with a widespread lack of pastoral care has made many LGBT Catholics feel deeply unwelcome in the Catholic church in which they were brought up and leads in many cases to feelings of deep distress. It is clearly wrong that God’s baptised find themselves in such in an isolated position, making it so much more difficult to practise their faith on their own, away from a supporting and nurturing community. This leads in many cases to suicide, depression and mental, physical and emotional problems. This is a very grave responsibility for the bishops to address. We therefore ask that a comprehensive pastoral process be developed to ensure that LGBT Catholics are supported as much as possible in their faith and life journey, which is a prime responsibility of the Church. ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:40) “

3) The need for dialogue and healing:

“There needs to be a deep process of dialogue and listening between the hierarchy and the laity. This questionnaire is one attempt to do this and we applaud it. However, unless it is accompanied by a lived experience at the parish and diocesan level between laity, priests and bishops, it will not bear as much fruit as it can. There are many wounds to heal within the Church, as Pope Francis has said, and we wish to deepen the process that LGBT Catholics Westminster Pastoral Council has started with the support of the Archdiocese of Westminster, and support this development at a national level.”

4) Steadfastness as LGBT Catholics:

 “We believe that God’s grace continues to support LGBT Catholics in their faith journey, despite the many obstacles, lack of support and ignorance that many of us experience in our local churches. In our community, we have a number of people from other Christian denominations interested in becoming Catholics. Despite the vitriol sometimes levelled at LGBT people by some members of the Catholic hierarchy, we still witness other LGBT Christians being drawn to become Catholics. We believe that this is a sign from God that He does indeed call all to believe and live with Him in community.”

You can read the entire text of the letter here.

Though written from just one nation, I think this document expresses very succinctly many of  the longings of LGBT Catholics world-wide.  I am grateful for our friends in London for putting together such a pointed and poignant text, and for speaking their truth to the hierarchy.  May their words soften hearts, open minds, and encourage leaders to seek further information and testimony from LGBT people.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

U.S. Catholic Bishops Invited to New Dialogue on LGBT Issues

November 14, 2013

Equally Blessed LogoThe U.S. Catholic bishops have been invited to open a new and more positive chapter in their relationships with LGBT Catholics and and their supporters.  The invitation came in the form of a letter from the leaders of Equally Blessed, a coalition of four national Catholic organizations (Call To Action, DignityUSA, Fortunate Families, New Ways Ministry) that work for justice and equality for LGBT people.

The letter, addressed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who have been meeting in Baltimore this week, invites the church’s leaders to put past events behind them and start a forward-thinking dialogue with LGBT people and supporters. The Equally Blessed leaders wrote:

“Now is the time for us all to adopt a new approach in dealing with issues of human sexuality, especially in dealing with LGBT people, as Pope Francis seems to be calling us to do. It will take time to rebuild trust between members of the Conference and those who have been damaged by its past policies. But, if Jesus came that we all might be one, then healing must begin. So we implore you to sit down with us, to listen to voices from the margins of the Church, and to speak with us candidly about your own concerns. We offer an outstretched hand of invitation.”

The letter writers suggested several areas of common-ground where the bishops can collaborate with them:

“The bishops and LGBT Catholics and their allies have many opportunities to show where our Church is united in its commitment to the dignity of the human person. The bishops have many opportunities to reach out to LGBT persons without violating Church teaching. The USCCB could issue an unambiguous statement declaring that bullying children because of their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity is unacceptable. Parishes and diocesan offices could be encouraged to make concerted efforts to include LGBT people in their outreach ministries and other agendas.  The Church could make an effort to create pastorally sensitive ministries that would deal with the problem of LGBT youth homelessness and suicide. Together, we are sure we can find other ways to send out positive and mercy-filled messages.”

The Equally Blessed leaders stressed that this is an opportune time for such a dialogue:

“At this pivotal moment in the life of our church, we, the leaders of the Equally Blessed coalition, invite you into a deeper relationship with LGBT Catholics, their families and their friends. We seek, first of all, simple conversation with you. Rather than speaking about LGBT people, or, worse yet, against LGBT people, we urge you to sit down and speak with LGBT people. We ask you to convene local and national conversations in which lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics, their families and their friends can tell you about their faith and their commitment to the Church.  The spirit of respect and openness that these conversations could foster would be balm on the wounds of LGBT Catholics and those who love them.”

Invoking the spirit of the new papacy, the LGBT equality leaders stressed that it’s time for a different way for the bishops to approach the topic of sexuality:

“At a time when Pope Francis is urging the church to move beyond what he calls its “obsession” with sexual issues, we, faithful Catholics committed to equality and justice within the Church we love, pray that you will hear our voices and respond with mercy.”

The letter was signed by the following organizational representatives:  Call To Action: Jim FitzGerald, Executive Director; DignityUSA: Marianne Duddy-Burke, Executive Director; Fortunate Families: Casey Lopata, Co-Founder, Deb Word, President; New Ways Ministry: Francis DeBernardo, Executive Director, Sister Jeannine Gramick, Co-Founder.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry


British Catholic Leaders Support Marriage Equality Legislation

August 13, 2012

The Times of London, England, has published a letter to the editor today from 27 prominent British Catholics expressing support for the United Kingdom’s proposed legislation to legalize same-gender marriage.  (It is not possible to link to the text on the Times’ website because a subscription is required to access letters to the editor.)

The 27 signatories include James Alison (theologian & priest), Tina Beattie (theologian), Mary Grey (theologian), Bernard Lynch (priest), Martin Pendergast (Chair, Centre for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality).

The text of the letter reads:

“Sir,  Not all Catholics share their hierarchy’s stated views against proposals to extend civil marriage to same-sex couples. Nevertheless, the submission by the Catholic Bishops of England & Wales  to the Government’s equal civil marriage consultation indicates a growing understanding about legislating for same-sex unions, compared with its 2003 position, when it firmly opposed civil partnerships.

“It seems  to us, as Catholic laity, theologians and clergy, important to uphold some key pastoral care principles used by the Catholic Church in England & Wales. Its 1979 guidelines stated that the Church has a serious responsibility to work towards the elimination of any injustices perpetrated on homosexuals by society.

“In 1997 Cardinal Hume wrote that love between two persons, whether of the same sex, or of a different sex, is to be treasured and respected. This respect demands that such loving relationships be afforded social recognition according to social justice principles. He proposed three criteria for considering issues of social policy: are there reasonable grounds for judging that the institution of marriage and the family could, and would be undermined by a change in law? Would society’s rejection of a proposed change be more harmful to the common good than the acceptance of such a change? Does a person’s sexual orientation or activity constitute, in specific circumstances, a sufficient reason for treating that person in any way differently from other citizens? We suggest that it is perfectly proper for Catholics, using fully informed consciences, to support the legal extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples.”

The full list of signers:

James Alison, Theologian & priest
Ruby Almeida, Chair of Quest (LGBT Catholics)
Tina Beattie, Theologian  
Mike Castelli, Educationalist
Mark Dowd, Journalist
Michael Egan, Chair, Lesbian & Gay Christian Movement
Maria ExallChair, Trade Unions Congress LGBT Committee
John Falcone, Theologian
Eileen Fitzpatrick, Educationalist
Kieran Fitszimons, Priest
Mary Grey, Theologian
Kevin Kelly, Theologian & priest
Ted Le Riche, Retired educationalist
Bernard Lynch, Priest
Gerard Loughlin, Theologian
Francis McDonagh, Lay-person
Patrick McLoughlin, Priest
Anthony Maggs, Priest
Lorraine Milford, Lay-person
Frank Nally, Priest                                                                                                                                                                                                       Martin Pendergast, Chair, Centre for the Study of Christianity & Sexuality                                                                                         Sophie Stanes, Lay-person                                                                                                                                                                                       Joe Stanley, Lay-person                                                                                                                                                                                   Valerie Stroud, Chair, Catholics for a Changing Church                                                                                                                                Terry Weldon, Editor, Queering the Church                                                                                                                                            Matias Wibowo, Lay-person                                                                                                                                                                           Deborah Woodman, Clinical Psychologist

Congratulations and many thanks for this thoughtful piece.  Let’s hope and pray that Catholic leaders in other countries, particularly the United States, will speak out as clearly and forthrightly.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry


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